Ivory Coast: can a First Lady ignite a country? The strange case of Simone Gbagbo

3 000 deaths and thousands of hundreds of refugees, an exacerbation of ethnical, religious and political conflicts and an economic crisis that spread into West Africa. It is the tragic bottom line of the post-electoral crisis that shook Ivory Coast in 2010 and 2011 and was caused by actions of the regime of President Gbagbo, and in its heart – First Lady Simone Gbagbo.

In the aftermath of the lost election the incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo refuses to accept his defeat. Along with his wife, Simone Gbagbo, he organises parallel State’s structures, attempts to censor the media and reinforces his hate speech against ethnicities living in the North of the country. During five months the country is set on a course of violent confrontations between supporters of both presidents. In April 2011 the formal presidential couple get captured by forces loyal to President Alassane Ouattara, UNOCI (United Nations Operation in Cote d’Ivoire) and French Licorne troops. Whereas the International Criminal Court demands to transfer both spouses to Hague, Ouattara’s government sends only the former president and refuses to deliver Simone Gbagbo, claiming that the country is able to judge her fairly.

Unfortunately, a recent trial of the former First Lady not only displayed country’s difficulties to return to the path toward a complete democratisation of Ivory Coast, but also became a possible bone of conflict in the beforehand of approaching presidential elections.

 

 

“Maman Simone” or “Iron Lady”: who’s Simone Gbagbo?

Simone Gbagbo is a very controversial personality. As a young teacher and trade unionist she was a symbol of the fight for democracy and political pluralism. Because of her participation in protest movements in the 1970’s, she was prisoned and tortured for several months. She entered on the political stage in the 1990’s when she joint her husband in the leadership of the Ivorian Popular Front, a center-left party created a decade before.

The change arrived in 2000 when Gbagbo became the president of Ivory Coast. Simone refused to limit her role to representative duties. The more years passed, the more she got implied in political matters. In June 2001 she said in L’Express: “It is true that I have an office. You should keep in mind that I have a political past. (…) My current position is due to my experience, not to my husband’s office. I don’t want to create a foundation. For that, you have NGOs.” She has never hidden her role of the president’s counselor, placed above all the ministers. She became one of the most polarizing personalities in her country: called “Maman Simon” by her supporters and “Iron Lady” by her opponents.

After the explosion of violence in 2010, Simone Gbagbo is accused of leading the oppression system. The international arrest warrant recalls that although Simone Gbagbo has no elective responsibilities, strong proofs can confirm her guilt in crimes of blood.

 

“When you cannot reach the King, target the Queen”

The refusal of the Ivorian authorities to surrender Simone Gbagbo worried the international community which feared a political process. “When you cannot reach the King, target the Queen” Valery Giscard d’Estaing commented years ago with those words attacks on his wife. Although the guiltiness of the former First Lady is highly likely, at the end of the day it seems that her prosecution was rather a political spectacle than a fair trial.

First of all, Simone Gbagbo was judged along with 82 other accused and all of them were pro-Gbagbo. Not even one supporter of Ouattara has been brought to justice in spite of the fact that one third of crimes was committed by the camp of current president.

Secondly, Simone Gbagbo was judged for crimes “against the State” and not for blood crimes. Therefore, the accusation act displayed a will to judge her on the political level and left on the second plan concerns toward reparations for the victims.

Thirdly, the accusation could have built up a very strong case, reinforced by various proofs, yet during the process only five witnesses were questioned and Simone Gbagbo appeared on the bar only once. Therefore, it seems that Human Right Watch concerns about Ivorian difficulties to hold to account the former First Lady were true.

Finally, Simone Gbagbo was sentenced to 20 years of prison. It was the double of what the prosecutor asked for. Moreover, the former First Lady lost her civic rights and should pay important fees to the State.

 

National reconciliation: a long way to go

Despite the severity of the verdict, it is almost sure that Simone Gbagbo will not serve her sentence. Already in January 2014, President Ouattara announced that no matter the final decision of the court, he would grant her the presidential pardon in the name of national reconciliation and the country’s rebuilding. Notwithstanding his decision can be rather an insignificant act than a real step in the peacebuilding process.

The process of Simone Gbagbo and her impassioned speeches resurrected ghosts of the recent past. The conflict between the North and the West of the country seems to be the strongest since 2011. And Simone Gbagbo, who repeatedly called into question the legitimacy of President Ouattara and reasons of her trial, has grown into an emblematic figure of the Ivorian Popular Front.

 

2015 presidential elections: when old ghosts risk reappearing

The trial and its controversial verdict have arrived in a moment of a particular fragility. The Ivorian Popular Front, in opposition to the current government, is struggling with internal conflicts. The current chief of the party (sentenced for 18 months, currently in provisory detention) is internally contested and unable to maintain the unity of the political formation. There is thus a possibility of a fracture between the moderated and the radical wing. It seems particularly dangerous in the scope of approaching presidential elections. It will be a real acid test of the peacebuilding process and democratization advancements in Ivory Coast. The case of Simone Gbagbo is thus of crucial importance as it can impact the future of the country in both positive and negative way. For that reason, the Ivorian authorities and the opposition are negotiating about the future of the former First Lady.

 

Although she has no political power anymore, Simone Gbagbo even behind the bars has influence on her country. After the verdict´s hearing she said: “I forgive, because if we don’t forgive this country will burn”. Her analysis seems to be fairly true. It remains however to be seen which attitude she will adopt on the eve of the presidential elections and whether Ivory Coast will follow the path of the national reconstruction or again be set on fire.

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